Why women from migrant backgrounds suffer family violence in silence

Could it be that our generalised 'one-size-fits-all' approach needs a tweak?

Could it be that our generalised 'one-size-fits-all' approach needs a tweak? Photo: Stocksy

I grew up in a migrant culture where abuse and violence was generally kept hush hush. Women and children suffered in silence behind closed doors, or in extreme cases, the 'problem' was dealt with by extended family members, or a psychiatrist, so the woman can become 'normal' or 'a better wife'. There is guilt and shame for women whose duty it is to keep the family unit intact and functioning within the larger community where success is defined by family cohesion and materialism.  

This abuse or violence doesn't have to be ongoing to be damaging. One or two incidents are enough to create the threat of violence, which reinforces gender inequality, keeps patriarchy alive, and women and children 'in check'. Migrant communities cling to culture as a form of identity. The fear of being rejected by it is unbearable so many just suffer in silence.  

In a recent parliamentary assembly, Annette Gillespie, CEO of Safe Steps said, "Public safety surveys show that the majority of women who experience violence never contact support services". She acknowledged women and children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds (CALD) – particularly women without permanent residency – face additional barriers together with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, people who have disability, and LGBTI communities. In 2014, 33 percent calls they received identified as coming from non-English speaking backgrounds.

Lyn Walker, a principal consultant for AMES, who is working on the development of a National strategy to prevent violence against women in emerging and established CALD Communities, believes we need a more proactive approach. 


"We won't "treat" ourselves out of this problem. We need to get ahead of it," she said. Walker highlighted the national attitude survey results which show there is room for improvement in CALD communities, particularly towards attitudes to gender inequality.  

Indian-born psychiatrist and executive director of the non-government Australasian Centre for Human Rights Dr Manjula O'Connor sees many victims and believes the current approach is rendering women from migrant backgrounds 'voiceless'.

In 2012,  she told SBS that Vic Health research found "cultures where there are male patriarchal attitudes tend to be more permissive of domestic violence'. This was evident earlier this year when two magistrates spoke out after noticing Indian women withdrawing intervention orders against their partners.

"Many of these women come from communities where the message is they must stick together … and issues such as shame and family unity take on great importance," Sunshine and Werribee Magistrates Courts Magistrate Noreen Toohey said. "If you were a migrant victim of family violence and you were being told by your community that they would not talk to you, and that you would be a source of shame in your community if you do not settle the matter out of court, what would you do?"

Language barriers and cultural pressures make the mainstream conversation to shift perceptions towards violence almost inaccessible to CALD communities. I worry our barriers are dismissed as cultural. Rosie Batty and Natasha Stott Despoja are high profile change champions in the mainstream media. But are they always relatable to women from migrant backgrounds?

"Multiculturalism is good for economics, but we often forget that where there are people there are social issues and that they should not be put on the backburner," Dr O'Connor told me. "When I speak up about stopping domestic violence I speak about issues that are more relevant for my own community, for example dowry related domestic violence. Although the problem is also found among other ethnic groups its nature and form varies according to traditions of each group. Thus we need specific programs within each of these community groups led by their own leaders and their own ethnic media. If we don't stand up, nothing will change."

Walker and Dr O'Conner expressed the need for work to be done at the community level and getting community organisations on board. "We need tailored solutions," Walker said. "It is important that women have a presence in every profession and sector and that the contribution made by women to our communities is visible. This is particularly important in arenas such as education, employment, sport and the arts."  

"What I am aware of is that not enough educational material that is written in minority languages,' Gillespie said, "there is not enough on television stations such as SBS where migrant communities might be watching, or radio stations, there isn't enough support programs for women that are by women of minority cultures within their own community, and certainly there isn't enough of men stepping forward from migrant communities challenging other men within their community."

When I pointed out the lack of female representation in ethnic TV Annette said, "It just demonstrates how gender inequity can make silence and make invisible women and their children, and so, the dominate narrative continues because there isn't any alternative story being presented and available to the community.

"There's no role models there for them to aspire to be…We need the people of influence, the people who have the economic power...to take up this challenge to give women an equal space

"So if providing a television show or a radio show, they should have a gender lens across what they are providing. How are women being represented? Are they being represented in equal numbers? Are they being represented by women, telling a women's story?

"When we have strong women step forward, and being able to tell the story of behalf of other women, from a gender specific lens, then we will see some change."

Koraly Dimitriadis is a poet, writer, actor, performer and filmmaker. www.koralydimitriadis.com